The one absolutely essential element in fiction

Michael Stuart Kelly

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The one absolutely essential element in fiction

When you read Ayn Rand on writing fiction - or an essay like The Goal of My Writing, you get a lot of really good advice. However, there is one essential element - one critical part - that is usually glossed over. It should be be emphasized, though. Frankly, it can't be emphasized enough.

The purpose of a fiction story is not to present an ideal person. It is not to exhibit style or develop plot or any of the mechanics. All these are excellent components, but they are not the essential one. They have a frame.

A good story tells of a person who wants something, can't have it and what he/she does about it.


A good story tells of a person who wants something, can't have it and what he/she does about it.

(That goes for groups of people too.)

If this is not the base to which all the rest is added, including the presentation of an ideal human being, then the story falls flat. And this base carries all, the ideal person and the most varied types of non-ideal people - and it carries all of them well, too. They simply have to want something and can't have it and the story flows.

That's it.

I believe that this point is the main one that gets missed time and time again with people who try to write Objectivist-type fiction. They don't let their characters want badly enough. Nor have that want frrustrated enough.

This element is true for all forms of fiction - all - except the really bad artsy stuff.

A very simple example is a common chase scene, and it works. One party wants to get away and the other wants to catch him/her/them. Obstacles arise to frustrate both sides.

But just in case Objectivists have a hard time with Rand's fiction, here is how it works in The Fountainhead.

Roark wants to build buildings according to his vision. A world that values mediocrity doesn't let him, time and time again. He overcomes each obstacle according to his own code of selfishness and integrity.

Or how about making it even simpler? Roark wants to build. The world doesn't let him. He does it anyway.

The more a strong want is presented and frustrated and solutions groped after, the more exciting the story is. This extends to all of the other characters, too.

(You can think about Atlas Shrugged and Rand's other fiction works.)

Without nonstop wanting and constant blocks, none of the rest would hold very much interest. Neither characterization, philosophy, heroes, villains, style, theme, events, any of it. None of the climaxes would be possible either.

Making intense desire believable, obstacles great and solutions exciting is the secret to making all the rest work.

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Michael, I'm surprised no one else has commented on this. This is an enormously important and succinctly stated principle of drama writing. And it pertains to writing dramatic music, too.

One of the most effective techniques composers have for creating a sense of frustration in a musical progression is to repeatedly turn away from a strongly prepared "cadence" (ending chord sequence, usually the dominant to tonic or 5-1). The first composer I'm aware of that used this technique to the hilt was Richard Wagner in (hope I got the title right) "Love's Death" in Tristan und Isolde. The first time I ever heard it, I was in a roomful of people who were all squirming uncomfortably from the tension being generated by Wagner's deliberate manipulation of our musical expectations. Talk about unrequited yearing! Gads, that is intense stuff.

You know, it would have taken Rand very little study of music theory and composition to have been able to write a much, MUCH better explanation of how music works than she did in "Art and Cognition" (in The Romantic Manifesto. But instead, she used Helmholtz's study of the physiology of musical perception (she erroneously followed him in referring to our awareness of musical tones as "sensations") and thereby missed all of the juicy stuff that so neatly parallels what she wrote on characterization and plot in her literature essays.

Several years later, the Blumenthals did some really good lectures on music, and they talked explicitly about how the Classical and (especially) Romantic composers developed their musical themes analogously to literary characters and plot. As an antidote to the (to me) hugely irrelevant stuff Rand wrote on music, I suggest ordering the Blumenthal tapes (CDs now?) from Laissez Faire Books and treating yourself to some really classy lectures on music theory, history, and performance. I reference them in my essay, "Art as Microcosm" (JARS, vol. 5, no. 2), which also goes into this issue at some depth.

Best holiday wishes to all,


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  • 2 weeks later...

Very good Michael. It is as simple and elegant as the pursuit of values against opposition of some kind. Roger I hadnt thought about it in terms of music but you are right.



(Note from Administrator: John Newnham asked to be removed from the member list before the forum was transferred to a new program, thus his member name was lost.)

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